At 1:30 p.m. Monday, October 29, Kenya Airways flight 003 took off for Nairobi from JFK International Airport. It was a party from start to finish, with a catered lunch buffet at the gate, gift bags containing a water bottle and striped kikoi scarf, prizes awarded by lottery over the PA system, and a red-carpet reception headlined by Kenya’s deputy president, William Ruto. It was also attended by dancers, musical troupes, and several dozen uniformed rank-and-file employees.
As well it should have been: Flight 033 was the first commercial non-stop direct flight from New York to Nairobi, which has cut travel time to East Africa from 20+ hours to around 14 (though our plane made swift progress, landing in under 13 hours). This flight will be a game-changer, says Cherri Briggs, owner and president of Explore, Inc. “Previously it was necessary to go via London, Amsterdam, or one of the Gulf cities, which always made for tiresome layovers. This flight will allow people to leave New York and wake up in Nairobi—not have to overnight there, unless they want to—and get to the bush the same day they land.” The prices are also very competitive,” says Mark Nolting of the Africa Adventure Company. “We just booked a client in business class from JFK/Nairobi-Nairobi/Cape Town—Nairobi/JFK for under $4,000. This is also an especially good value as they are flying a new Boeing 787, which should result in a very comfortable ride.”
Inside that gleaming new Boeing Dreamliner—a plane known for its spacious cabins, jet-lag taming mood lighting, and cabin air that’s actually breathable—the flight was exceptionally smooth. The plane’s signature purple-hued mood-lighting morphed from day to evening as the 234 passengers flew east into the evening, and filled up on a dinner of slow-roasted Asian corned hen or Maine crusted red snapper filet. In business class, the plane’s 30-passenger top-tier section, the seats lay down flat—deep sleep being a good compensation for the flight’s one drawback, a lackluster entertainment selection dominated by second-run movies like The Intern and Gone Girl (next time, I’ll load my iPad).
Kenya Airways’ congenial chairman, Michael Joseph, happened to be sitting a couple of seats over, and as we approached Nairobi he explained that the new route is expected to boost not just tourism but trade to East Africa, especially as the airline is also planning to add new nonstop routes from D.C. and Atlanta. That was certainly the impression given by the red-carpet fanfare upon arrival. “This is a moment of pride for Kenya,” deputy president Ruto said to the assembled crowd. “The Nairobi-New York route will strengthen Kenya’s position as the travel and business hub of central Africa.”
Landing at 10:30 a.m. means that you can connect with afternoon flights to the Masai Mara, Kilimanjaro Airport for northern Tanzania, and Kigali or Entebbe for gorilla trekking. With an eight-hour layover before my next flight, I hired a driver to take me around (arranged through Steppes Travel, who’d booked my Rwanda trip), though Ubers are ubiquitous. Nairobi National Park may be the only national park you can access this way; you can see game like lions, leopards, zebra, giraffe, and buffalo. On the park’s far side is the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (make a reservation in advance), where from 11-12 you can watch the handlers bring out the orphaned baby elephants and rhinos for their daily mud baths.
Also just ten miles from Nairobi: a delicious lunch of salad and chicken sandwich in the stately garden at Giraffe Manor (three courses for $75), set on 12-acres of private land with a herd of Rothschild’s giraffe; you can also pop over to feed the giraffe next door at the Giraffe Centre. From there, if you’re inclined, I highly recommend a stop at Kazuri Beads Factory, where you can shop the colorful handmade jewelry and pottery made by disadvantaged Kenyan women, before a visit to the adjacent Karen Blixen Museum, the Out of Africa author’s old farmhouse “at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” still full of her furniture and books. (It’s open from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.) Just make sure you leave enough time to get back to the airport, as traffic in Nairobi can double this 45-minute drive at rush hour.